A Dash of Style - Part Four

Posted by Noah Lukeman on

In last week's installment of my book, A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation, we began to discuss ways that quotation marks might be misused. In this final installment, we'll examine this issue in depth, and also look at the power of quotation marks when used in context with other punctuation.

In some trendy works (and classic works, too) you'll find that authors opt not to use quotation marks at all, but rather to indicate dialogue with some other mark, such as a dash, or italics, or no mark at all (not to be confused with paraphrasing). For example:

--I don't want your computer. I told you, I don't have any place to put it.
--But it's not that old.
--That's what you said last time. And you stuck me with a 1964 dishwasher.

These authors choose not to use quotation marks to differentiate dialogue, but rather simply allow their dialogue to blend with the text. Even some great authors have done this, notably James Joyce or, more recently, Cormac McCarthy. Presumably this is done for the sake of style, but to my mind this makes the reading experience unnecessarily hard on the reader. Why boycott quotation marks? The quotation mark does its job very well: it is unique and highly visible. It is as near perfect as a punctuation mark could hope to be. It was invented in the first place because there was a need for a mark to help clearly indicate dialogue. Omitting it, or refusing to indent, or replacing it with dashes, will just confuse a reader.

There are, of course, exceptions. As I mentioned, even great authors have crafted works that, for whatever reason, avoided quotation marks. Consider this example from William Carlos Williams's "The Use of Force":

They were new patients to me, all I had was the name, Olson. Please come down as soon as you can, my daughter is very sick. When I arrived I was met by the mother, a big startled looking woman, very clean and apologetic who merely said, Is this the doctor? and let me in. In the back, she added. You must excuse us, doctor, we have her in the kitchen where it is warm. It is very damp here sometimes.

Williams is a brilliant writer, and this is an exceptional short story, and I can understand why he avoided quotation marks. That said, I nonetheless would have preferred to have them here; it just burdens the reader with unnecessary effort, and diverts energy into trying to decipher who is speaking.

Occasionally one encounters a work where quotation marks are used heavily to offset individual words, often in order to indicate irony or sarcasm. For example:

He said I didn't have an "eye" for detail, that I didn't "know" what to do, that I was just "beginning" to enter this world--like he's such an "expert."

Such works usually come hand in hand with flippant writing, where a cynical tone prevails. The problem with this, aside from being stylistic, is that it becomes a safety net. When every other word is encapsulated by quotation marks to indicate irony or sarcasm, the writer clearly uses it as an escape, to avoid definitively taking a personal stand. Eventually it will lose its effect and turn readers off.


Quotation marks are the quintessential team player. They never muscle other punctuation marks out of their way--on the contrary, they need and embrace them. As we saw above, quotation marks by themselves can only go so far in creating an effect. If they want to indicate pauses, breaks, and momentous moments in dialogue, they need help from the comma, period, dash, and colon. Let's look at some of the ways they work together:

* Without the comma, quotation marks cannot even conclude a basic line of dialogue:

"I'm going to the laundry," he said.

They also need commas to indicate a pause, and to continue dialogue:

"I'm going to the laundry," he said, "and you're not coming with me."

* Periods are equally needed by quotation marks, since dialogue cannot be concluded without them:

"I'm going to the laundry."

* Quotation marks need colons if they want to help indicate finality or a revelation:

I looked at him and said: "Don't ever talk to me again."

* And without dashes, quotation marks couldn't indicate interruption:

"I really don't think you should--"
"I don't care what you think," she said.

Just about the only marks that don't do well with quotation marks are semicolons and parentheses. Theoretically these marks can be used within dialogue, but they are hard to hear within speech and are thus better suited for prose.

Dialogue itself is all about context. Too much prose without dialogue is anathema, while too much dialogue without prose is the same. One must develop an ear for knowing when prose needs a break, and when dialogue needs to curtail itself. It's a delicate balance, and quotation marks are the great indicator. Consider this fine example from Katherine Anne Porter's story "The Martyr":

When earnest-minded people made pilgrimages down the narrow, cobbled street, picked their way carefully over puddles in the patio, and clattered up the uncertain stairs for a glimpse of the great and yet so simple personage, she would cry, "Here come the pretty sheep!" She enjoyed their gaze of wonder at her daring.

Here the dialogue stands out, as it comes on the heels of such a long sentence, such a long stretch of prose. It almost feels as if the long sentence is building momentum, which culminates with the quotation.

What Your Use of Quotation Marks Reveals about You

Often it's hard for writers to take a step back and gain true objectivity on their own work. Punctuation, though, never lies. Whether you like it or not, punctuation reveals the writer. Analyzing your punctuation forces you to take a step back, to gain a bird's-eye view of your own writing. It reveals a tremendous amount about your style, and about your approach to writing. Let's take a step back now and gain that bird's-eye view. We will listen to the punctuation--not the content--and let it tell us its story. It always has a good story to tell.

In many cases, a publishing professional need only flip through a manuscript to get an immediate idea of its worth: quotation marks tell the story. Writers who overuse dialogue (and thus quotation marks) don't have an acute sense of pacing, don't realize that a work can progress too fast. They rely heavily on dialogue, which means they're also using it poorly, since overuse comes hand in hand with misuse. They might, for instance, be using dialogue as a means of conveying information. They are more likely to be beginners, plot-oriented, and anxious for a fast pace.

Alternatively, they might be playwrights or screenwriters-turned-authors, stuck in the remnants of their previous form. In either case, they are more likely to neglect setting and character development. They are impatient, believe too much in the power of speech, and not enough in the power of silence. And since dialogue rates fairly high on the drama scale, these writers are likely to be melodramatic.

The good news is that they strive for drama, and aim to please the reader. Additionally, their abundance of dialogue means an abundance of character interaction, which means they at least strive to bring their characters together and create scenes between them.

Writers who overuse quotation marks for another purpose--to offset individual words or phrases--are more likely to be insecure. They couch a plethora of words behind the security of quotation marks, either to quote someone else or to indicate irony or sarcasm, and thus are afraid to simply state things in their own right. They are more likely to be cynical, and need to realize that at some point readers will want seriousness and confidence. The good news for them, though, is that they will probably take themselves less seriously and be at least somewhat funny, both positive traits which offer much promise.

Writers who underuse quotation marks (resulting in too little dialogue) are rare. They are more likely to be serious literary authors and to have great faith in the power of prose. They are more likely to be silent types, to be internal. All of this bodes well. Unfortunately, though, they are also likely to be self-indulgent, to think of pleasing themselves rather than readers. Their work will be slow going, often in a deadly way, since they don't grasp that most readers need to move at a quick pace. They are likely to rely too heavily on description, and since dialogue brings scenes and drama, its absence means that they might not think enough in terms of heightened moments. There will be issues with their characters, too: either individually the characters won't be interesting enough to have much to say, or collectively they've created populations that just don't interact very well. If there is a pool of characters in a work with a lot to say to each other, dialogue will come whether you like it or not. Such a forum cannot exist in a work devoid of quotation marks.


* Practice the power of silence. Choose a moment in your work where dialogue would be expected--and don't offer any. Is your character physically unable to speak? Overcome by emotion? Stunned and at a loss for words? How can silence turn a scene?

* Take a page from your work and cut the number of quotations marks in half. What is the effect? Will there be more said at once? Or will dialogue have to be cut? (Experiment with both options.) How does this impact pacing?

* Take a page from your work and double the number of quotations marks in half. What is the effect? Will there be less said at once? Or will dialogue have to be added? (Experiment with both options.) How does this impact pacing?

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